starbucks coffee mug from the binsI used to be something of a mall rat, flashing my plastic to buy whatever pretty thing was on sale! (40% off way too much, whee!). And then I grew up, got a couple of kids, and discovered real happiness at the Goodwill Outlet in my town (we call it "the Bins"). All the same fashions as the mall -- well, all last year's fashions -- but sold for 69 cents a pound. True love ensued.

Now I'm a savvy "picker," a woman who knows what to look for and can spot a valuable find an aisle away. I've also filled up big boxes of failed purchases to send back for some other unschooled thrifty soul. Here are a few things I've learned:

Do thrift: Coffee mugs. I don't know about you, but I love a cute mug. It makes me happy, sitting there on my desk, and I'm always wanting to spend $9.99 on a cool new shape at Starbucks. But wait! In another year it will be calling your name in a bin at your friendly thrift store, for 99 cents, and you won't mind so much when you drop it. After all, there's sure to be another great new mug waiting in the wings.

Don't thrift: Baking pans. Why do I persist in believing I can scrub that spot of rust off? I've ruined a fair number of perfectly good cupcakes with (ahem) "vintage" baking pans I found for such a bargain. New loaf pans, cupcake tins, and pie plates are the way to go here.

Do thrift: Sweaters (but try them on). That cabled number I loved at J. Crew two years ago? $59.00 on an amazing holiday sale! I skipped the sale, and found it later at the Bins. Take a close look, though, because many wool sweaters end up thrifted when they've been accidentally felted in the wash. It still may fit you (especially if you're smallish), but don't trust the size on the label.

Don't thrift: Raincoats and rubber boots. It's wet where I live, and the boys grow fast. But every time I find what seems to be an amazingly sweet jacket, I discover upon getting it home that the hood's missing, the zipper doesn't work, the waterproofing has faded. Same with rubber boots; they're cheap enough (quality & price) without letting them go through a whole separate rain puddle jumping cycle.

Do thrift: Clothing labels you trust. I love Hanna Andersson and can spot a Swedish-inspired pajama in a pile of cast-offs instantly. I'm also a fan of Levi's, Columbia Sportswear, and the aforementioned J. Crew. If I trust the label, I'll buy it, even if it's an item I usually wouldn't touch (like the pair of great tights I bought last week).

Don't thrift: Picture books with weak bindings. I don't know how many children's books I've found recently whose pages have started falling out. Maybe my kids are too strenuous in their love of literature, but it's highly frustrating to try to read The Little Engine That Could without the middle.

Do thrift: Cookbooks. A good cookbook is $20 or $30 new. But in the thrift store, it's $1 or $2. And if it's spattered with chocolate or olive oil? You know that was a really great recipe!

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